A review of Writing True Stories (2nd Ed) by Patti Miller

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Writing True Stories
The Complete Guide to Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction, Personal Essay, Diaries, Biography, and Travel
By Patti Miller (Second Edition)
ISBN: 978-1-032-76563-1, Paperback, 352 pages

I reviewed the first edition of Patti Miller’s Writing True Stories in 2017. The original guide was one of the best guides to writing nonfiction that I had ever read, encompassing Miller’s extensive experience in teaching all forms of life-writing. This newly released second edition contains all of the wisdom of the first edition but expanded and updated to encompass new and very topical sections on ethics, more on creative nonfiction, new sections on journal writing, and new examples from a range of writers considered best of the best when it comes to nonfiction. This new edition has been structured into 24 workshops, each providing a complete lesson on such things as writing scenes, finding your voice, finding your story, structure, research, editing, and much more. In the seven or so years between the publication of the last edition and this one, I’d forgotten what a fantastic and useful resource this book is.

As with the first edition, this new release is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on the fundamentals, with eight workshops covering such things as getting started, uncovering memories, creating scenes, finding your unique voice, structure, narrative, and editing. The second part is  a series of masterclasses that go deeper into the craft. Both parts contain information about the topic, readings from published authors, writing exercises and some examples of exercises done. This leaves writers with plenty of interesting and helpful ideas, for example:

Poppy, by Drusilla Modjeska, begins with the image of an umbilical cord being cut. Each and every life has experienced this cutting of the cord, but for Modjeska it has a particular significance. We immediately feel the separation between mother and child and, as we read on, we discover that this is one of the main themes of the book. The cutting of the cord has become a symbol of separation and alienation. Symbols are the language of the subconscious, of dreams, memory, and poetry, and so have a powerful impact on our writing. (28) 

Throughout the book, Miller’s prose is clear, easy-to-read, and logical with ideas progressing to practical exercises designed to advance your writing in a direct, hands-on way. It’s not quite the same as taking one of Miller’s phenomenal in-person workshops, but all of the material in Writing True Stories have been tested in workshops. You can go through the book sequentially, working from idea to publication in manageable, pre-chunked steps, or you can use whatever chapters are needed to help you advance your story. The chapters are structured progressively but are also self-contained. I personally found workshop six to be particularly valuable as a starting point, creating a helpful scaffold to build a new book on:

The practical processes of structure are: the selection of events, and the order that you place them in, and the emphasis you give each event. Each of these structural steps contributes to create a sense of what your life has been about, to its meaning. What memories you select, where you place them in relation to other memories, and what emphasis you give them in terms of space and amount of detail will each affect the meaning. In fact, it would be possible to use the same selected events of a life and change the meaning entirely by changing the emphasis. (96)

The second part of the book – the “Masterclass” – is particularly good for someone who already has a manuscript and wants to do more with it. It covers such topics as dealing with days when you think your writing is terrible, how to amp up the sensory stimulus of your work, research and how to use it, experimenting with point of view and narrative voice, playing with time, pacing, working with letters and diaries not only as material but as practice and form, publishing your work, and a newly extended section on creative nonfiction – that’s a hybrid form that can borrow techniques from fiction writing, poetry, academic writing, literary criticism, travel writing, true crime, history, nature writing, science, journalism and memoir to create new and often unique forms of writing. As with part one, each chapter contains writing exercises, extensive examples, and lots of encouragement.

Throughout Writing True Stories Miller uses the perfect tone – clear and simple but never patronising or dumbed-down. The book always makes the assumption that everyone is the best expert on their own story and we are all beginners when facing the blank page. This makes this book incredibly versatile – for writers at any stage of their writing careers from beginners, those who have had a writing gap, or advanced writers with several published books. Above all, Writing True Stories is an enticement to get those stories out. As Miller makes clear, our stories convey truth and connect us to one another and to the world around us. They create meaning and express our humanity.What could be more important?